Emotional Intelligence Under Stress

At its most basic it is about being able to observe thoughts and feelings as they rise and fall in response to day to day challenges without becoming consumed in a struggle

It is the raw material of emotional intelligence


Daniel Goleman defined emotional intelligence in terms of a number of key fundamentals that included self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and the ability to manage relationships. He pointed out that when individual’s are upset they cannot remember, focus, learn or make decisions effectively –   ‘stress makes people stupid’ he said.

Goleman was referring here to the need for managers to be aware of how their interactions can cause stress and create the circumstances whereby individuals become less effective because they feel stressed.

Most managers who undertake emotional intelligence training are persuaded by the strong evidence base and the logic of applying emotional intelligence in the workplace. It makes sense, and for managers who ‘get it’ the motivation is strong to apply this to the work situation. However we know that personal change is difficult enough when things are going well so the challenge becomes implementing the changes we want when under pressure and stressed: when logic and reason seem to temporarily leave us.

The problem here is that when under stress and attempting to apply the lessons learnt about emotional intelligence, the manager is up against the brains hardwired reactions and also accrued habits.

As a general rule most people will able to monitor their actions and responses when things are normal. That is, when they are not challenged, when they perceive they are being treated fairly, when they are in control, and when their status is not under threat. But when an individuals buttons are pushed and a threat is perceived, what plays out some version of the fight or flight reaction.

In this situation, self-awareness and self-management which Goleman describes as being critical to emotional intelligence will generally represent a greater challenge especially for managers who have not been given any tools or techniques to connect with their emotions or to manage unexpected situations. However, what separates average from excellent leaders is how they show up in a crisis.

At one level self awareness is about knowing your strengths and limitations. It is about knowing that you will be nervous when asked to speak publicly. At another level, self awareness is about noticing the rise in anxiety and taking active steps to ensure that it doesn’t negatively impact the situation. In other words observing what is happening at the time of the public speaking challenge and managing the influx of emotions, thoughts and resulting bodily reactions.

Individuals who practice mindfulness are aware of their reactions, are familiar with their bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions and have a relationship with fear and discomfort that allows them to recognise the signs, drop the struggle and reconnect with the task and the person they want to be much faster than they otherwise might. They are more likely to appreciate the transitory nature of these thoughts and emotions and appreciate that whilst it is uncomfortable in the moment, the feelings are completely natural and that they will soon pass. They also know that fighting with the discomfort will not only prolong it but can make it worse.

Author: Graeme ByeJanuary 9, 2017


Graeme Bye is an organisational psychologist with a background in corporate organisations in HR and Leadership Development.

He coaches individuals and teams and includes mindfulness practices and techniques to improve effectiveness, manage stress and achieve focus.